How safe is your bank?

When you have your money in a bank, the money is legally no longer yours. It belongs to the bank and you become an “unsecured creditor”. This is the legal situation and it has been confirmed by the Reserve Bank in an email (27 March from Sonia Speedy) to Sue Hamill of Positive Money. When the bank has your money it can do what it likes with it, including take risks you don’t know about. So putting your money in a bank is a “customer beware” activity it seems. If you have your money in Bank of New Zealand, Westpac, ASB or ANZ, then you run the risk that you don't know too much about what your bank is up to. The latest thing is covered bonds, which is just one of these risks. They are packaging their ‘high quality residential mortgages’ up and selling them off as ‘Covered Bonds’ to investment funds. Then if the bank gets into trouble, the investment funds are ‘secured creditors’ and are ahead of you in line when the liquidator takes over. This means that Kiwi households will be forced to help bail out banks while overseas lenders have their money protected. If you think Kiwibank is an exception, then think again. They started selling off their mortgages as covered bonds in April 2013. But authorisation from Government doesn’t seem to matter to banks. When I rang Parliament on 9 May 2013, I found the Bill on covered bonds was still at committee stage, having passed its Second Reading on 22 February. Then there is the small matter of Interest Rate Swaps (IRS) which all these banks (and the Co-operative Bank too, not sure about TSB) engage in. If you can imagine taking out a variable-rate mortgage and then paying a bank to make your loan payments fixed, you've got the basic idea of an interest-rate swap. They comprise 80% of our derivatives market and are widely used by local authorities to hedge against the risk of interest rate changes. In April 2013 the US futures regulator was reported to be investigating allegations of manipulation of this popular derivatives benchmark and had issued subpoenas to market participants including the interdealer brokerage ICAP and several global banks. It seems the rates are set by 20 exhorbitantly paid brokers at a desk in Jersey City, New Jersey. A year earlier they had discovered that the LIBOR rates were being manipulated and this investigation has now been widened. LIBOR sets the actual interest rate that banks charge each other. Since mortgages, student loans, financial derivatives, and other financial products often rely on Libor as a reference rate, the manipulation of submissions used to calculate those rates can have significant negative effects on consumers and financial markets worldwide. At the time LIBOR was though to be the biggest financial scam ever. Two big banks have been fined for this including the Swiss bank UBS which was fined a record $1.5billion in Dec, 2012. Interest rates swaps are a gigantic market. Would you believe this figure, or even be able to imagine how big it is? It is $379 trillion in June 2012 (Bank of International Settlements website accessed May 1, 2103). The size of the global economy is $70 trillion, so it is more than five times this. The risk manager of the Co-operative Bank told me when I visited him in early 2012 that they were involved in interest rate swaps because it was safe and it saved them money. The Financial Manager of Kapiti Coast District Council told me they had made money from interest rate swaps and had no plans to drop the practice. So this leaves us with the possibility of putting your money with a credit union. Unfortunately all credit unions must use a bank for their overnight transfers, so that one is a dud too. There is one other possibility. When I rang the Reserve Bank some time ago about which banks were involved with Open Bank Resolution (where the customers bail out a distressed bank and which will be in place by July 1 this year) I was told there are two small Indian banks which were too small to be involved in the scheme. So there are the facts. The choice is now yours. I am sticking with the Co-operative Bank and TSB.